What is cabotage & how does it impact private jet flights?

Have you ever flown by private jet charter from Geneva to Lausanne on a French-owned aircraft? Or taken a domestic flight between New York and Los Angeles, on a Canadian aircraft?

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The answer will be no. Because these are examples of flights that do not have cabotage rights. Cabotage is the right to operate a domestic flight (ie within a country’s borders) by an aircraft that is from a different country.

The first charter PC-24 is competively-priced already versus similar-sized jets. Image: Pilatus Aircraft

What is cabotage?

The term ‘cabotage’ originates from the maritime industry, and specifically from the French word caboter, meaning to travel by the coast.

Cabotage in shipping terms was the right to deliver goods or passengers between ports in a country, by a ship from another country. During the eighteenth century, the increasing mobility of merchants meant they were able to begin selling their goods at shipping ports on the coast of foreign countries. This practice threatened the domestic market of the country, so rules were brought in.

The same logic was introduced to air law in the 1930s and laid down in the Chicago Convention of 1944, with cabotage meaning the right to operate passenger flights within the domestic borders of a country, by an aircraft registered outside that country. Most countries worldwide do not permit aviation cabotage.

How does cabotage impact private jet travel?

Private jets at RAF Northolt airport

By nature, private jet charter offer high levels of flexibility in routings – flying clients across a country, and between several states or countries, regardless of an aircraft’s home base.

And with many private flights one-way, open jaw, or multi-leg, an aircraft can end up in many different places, ready to start its next flight – much like a taxi on the ground. The aircraft’s operator will therefore look to sell a flight starting from their current position, in order to mimimise empty flights, and improve efficiency.

So the aircraft operator cannot operate a charter for a new flight on a domestic route from their new position – unless they can claim cabotage rights, under one of the exemptions or exceptions outlined below.

Cabotage within Europe & the EU

If you’ve ever flown from Rome to Milan with easyJet, or from Paris to Lyon with Lufthansa, you may be feeling confused. But that’s because flights within the European Union (EU) are a notable global exception to cabotage restrictions.

In the interests of free trade, the EU extended the cabotage rights to all of its Member States, which are considered a single state in the case of cabotage.

So aircraft registered in those countries can carry passengers freely within other countries that are in the EU zone. But not necessarily flights within European countries that are not in the EU.

Non-EU countries can still benefit from free movement if they are members of the ECAA (European Common Aviation Area). So this opens up the European aviation market to countries such as Norway and Iceland, who have a multilateral agreement which means they must abide by EU aviation laws and establish a ‘cooperative economic framework’.

But Switzerland has negotiated a series of separate bilateral agreements, giving it access to the EU aviation market, but under more limited conditions.

Legacy 600 interior cabin with sofa 700x466

The implications of Brexit on cabotage

With London the busiest city for private aviation in Europe, changes to cabotage rules in the event of Brexit are a major consideration for the whole industry – not just in the UK.

With the UK inside the EU, UK aircraft operators can operate flights freely elsewhere in Europe, and operators from other EU countries can freely operate domestic routes within the UK.

At the moment the terms of the UK’s exit remain to be seen. But if and when the UK leaves the EU, it would either need to negotiate a multilateral agreement, requiring it to accept EU aviation laws and to establish a ‘cooperative economic framework’ or go through the lengthy process of negotiating its own deal as Switzerland did.

Other geographical exceptions

Australia and New Zealand also have a similar free trade agreement, allowing each country to operate domestic flights within the other’s borders.

Chile has very liberal cabotage rules, and allows foreign aircraft to operate domestic flights within the country.

In Mexico, private jet operators cannot one-way drop off or pick up passengers if they are not a Mexican-registered aircraft and crew. If a passenger flies to Mexico on a commercial airliner, they cannot take a one-way private jet charter out on a non-Mexican aircraft (except in very special circumstances).

Private jet pilot greeting passengers

An exemption to the cabotage rule

But even on a route that would normally be disallowed due to cabotage, there is one exception to the rule. An operator can perform a connecting domestic flight within a state or country, if the following conditions are met:

1) The number and passenger list remains the same during the entire route.

2) The passengers board the connecting flight on the same day.

3) The passengers do not leave the airport during the connection.

How to ensure your private flight complies with cabotage laws

Cabotage can be a complex area, and for private charter it’s important to ensure that your flight route is permitted for your chosen aircraft.

PrivateFly works with thousands of aircraft operators worldwide. Our expert Flight Team, based in both Europe and the US, have extensive experience in arranging flights that comply with global cabotage rules.

For private charter advice and pricing on domestic or international routes, contact us or call our Flight Team (24 hours) on 020 7100 6960.